The causes of male fertility issues are often complex. Some can be addressed with a lifestyle overhaul, whilst others may require invasive surgeries or assisted fertility treatments. But could some cases be solved by a simple course of antibiotics, such as those caused by bacterial infections?
Evolving research indicates that bacterial and viral infections and issues with the sperm microbiome could be behind many cases of male infertility. Here we’ll explain the link between infections and sperm health.
Viral / Bacterial Infections and Sperm Health
When talking about infections, it’s important to understand the subtle but important difference between viral infections and bacterial infections.
Bacterial vs Viral Infection
Bacterial and viral infections often trigger similar symptoms in humans, but viral infections tend to be milder and not last as long, whereas bacterial infection tends to be more severe. In some cases, what might start as a viral infection, could develop into a bacterial infection – like a cold developing into a chest infection.
Bacterial infections – like chlamydia or a UTI – can often be treated with antibiotics, whereas viral infections – like herpes or the common cold – are harder to completely eradicate with medication.
How do viral and bacterial infections impact male fertility?
Both viral and bacterial infections can cause issues with male fertility. That’s because they both cause an inflammatory response in the body. Inflammation sometimes gets a bad reputation when talking about our health – but when it comes to fighting off infections, it’s hugely important! When bacteria or a virus starts attacking your body, inflammatory cells are sent out to trap whatever is trying to make you sick.
Whilst this is effective, there are side effects of an inflammatory response. In the short term, you may have a fever, or experience pain or swelling – and it can also cause oxidative stress on the body.
The combination of inflammation and oxidative stress is key to the link between infection and sperm health. Many studies have shown that inflammation can harm male fertility and oxidative stress is one of the biggest enemies of sperm production!
Types of infections that can impact male fertility
Any type of infection can cause inflammation in the body – which could potentially harm the sperm production process. However, there are some, more localised infections, that have been known to cause direct issues with male fertility.
The majority of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) have the potential to impact male fertility by causing inflammation and scarring in the reproductive system. This includes both bacterial infections (like gonorrhoea and chlamydia) and viral infections (like Hepatitis and HIV).
Mumps is a viral infection that used to be very common until the introduction of the MMR vaccine. One of the most common symptoms of mumps is swelling of the parotid glands which makes your face extremely puffy. However, one of the complications of Mumps can be swollen testicles. This seems to affect around a third of men who get mumps later in life. Out of the guys that have swollen testicles related to mumps, around 1 in 10 will see a drop in sperm count.
Epididymitis is an inflammation of the coiled tube at the back of the testicle that stores and carries sperm, called the epididymis, at the back of the testicle. This inflammation is usually caused by an infection (sometimes it can be triggered by an STI or Mumps). Symptoms include swollen, uncomfortable scrotum and you sometimes might see blood in the semen. If left untreated it can cause long-term issues with sperm production and fertility. You might also have orchitis, which is an infection in one or both testicles. If you have these infections at the same time, it’s known as epididymal-orchitis.
The prostate gland plays an important role in the production of semen, so if you have an infection of the prostate it can play havoc with your plans to conceive. Prostate infections usually occur when bacteria from urine leak into the prostate. Symptoms include yellow semen, painful ejaculation, difficulty urination, pain during sex and pain in the lower abdomen area or back.
Imbalanced Bacteria in Sperm Cells
There are also more subtle bacterial infections and imbalances that can cause issues with sperm health. Like every area of our body, the male reproductive system has a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria – this is known as the microbiome. When the bad bacteria become more predominant this can cause issues with health and fertility. It is estimated that around 33% of infertile men are living with ‘asymptomatic bacteriospermia’ (aka a bacterial imbalance in their microbiome that they know nothing about!)
How to know if an infection is affecting your fertility
When it comes to infertility, it is not always easy to identify the root cause of the issue. However, there are some ways you can spot whether you might be living with an infection that could be impacting your sperm health.
In some cases, infections will come with a bunch of recognisable symptoms including:
More localised infections of the male reproductive system may also exhibit:
- Pain and swelling of the testicles
- Pain during sex
- Pain when peeing
- Strange discharge or changes in semen colour
However, there are many times when infections will be asymptomatic aka have no symptoms at all, This is why testing is so important.
One of the simplest ways to start infection investigations is to do an STI test, as these are some of the most common infections that impact male fertility. Our partners Yoxly offer an at-home STI test that makes it easier than ever to get checked out for 8 of the most common sexually transmitted infections.
However, for a more detailed look at your sperm cells, you may want to invest in a semen culture test. This test will help to identify if there are any common infection-causing microorganisms present in your semen. Semen culture tests usually do check for some STIs but they will also check for many other pathogens that aren’t necessarily contracted through sex – so even if you are sure you don’t have an STI, it is still worth doing.
How To Treat Male Fertility Infections
If you have an infection that is impacting your fertility, the treatment will depend on what type of infection you have, how long you have had it, and the severity of it.
In some cases, where a bacterial infection is causing fertility issues, it may just take a simple course of antibiotics to clear up your infection, as Marco talks about in this video from Gaia. It’s possible that around three months after your treatment your sperm cells will be completely infection-free and your sperm health parameters will have greatly improved!
However, it can sometimes be more complicated than that. For example, if you have a viral infection – like Mumps or the ZIKA virus – these are not treatable with traditional medication and you usually just have to wait for symptoms to pass. If you contract a virus that causes swelling of your testicles, try to keep them as cool as possible to reduce the risk of long-term damage to your sperm health and reproductive system.
If you had an infection in the past and are concerned that it may have impacted your fertility, the best thing to do is to get to know your swimmers proactively. Our at-home sperm test makes it easier than ever to understand your fertility, without the cost or commitment of going to a fertility clinic.